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Examination of Music History

A verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate, it goes on to become.” – W.H. Auden. This quote best explains the complex art of music. Music is an elaborate art form that will always remain ever changing. Music developed drastically from it’s beginning in the Prehistoric era to the 14th Century.

The exact origin of music is unknown. It is known that music was used in prehistoric times in magical or spiritual rituals but no other use is known. This knowledge is borne out of the fact that music still forms a vital part of most religious ceremonies today.

The history of Greek music is problematic. Although there are frequent references to musical performance in Greek manuscripts, there are less than twelve fragments of actual Greek music, including both vocal and instrumental music, that have survived. It is impossible to fully understand the notation to make an authentic performance.

For the Greeks, music was of divine origin. According to Greek mythology, the gods themselves invented music and it’s instruments. Many of the early myths told of the powerful effects of music. Music played an important part in both the public and private lives of the Greeks. They believed it could deeply affect human behavior. Greek music was built up of a series of distinct modes, each with it’s own name. According to the doctrine of ethos, each mode was so powerful that it gave music the ability to influence human actions in a precise way. The Phrygian mode expressed passionate and intimate emotions, where as the Dorian mode produced forceful, rigid feelings.

In later Greek history the doctrine of ethos was widely argued by the most philosophical of men. Plato and Aristotle both had broadly different views on the power and importance of music. The persocratic philosopher Pythagoras was even interested enough in music to develop the numerical octave system that we still use today. The Classical Greeks used music in much of their drama and by the time Greece was made a Roman province, music dominated dramatic performances and social activities.

There is not a great deal of original Roman music. Most of the music that did come out of the Roman era was derived from the Greeks. Despite this, there was definite musical activity in the later Roman Empire. An ample amount of evidence survived for instruments and a good deal of theory also. But by in large Greek music remained the most popular in the Roman Empire.

Early Christian music drew off of Jewish sources. The custom of singing sacred verses at services was an ancient Jewish tradition that goes back to Mesopotamian sources. As the Church grew the music fell more into the care of professionals and it became greatly complex. Soon the church officials became fearful that the music was overpowering the worship and music was regulated in worship services.

The beginnings of Byzantine music was mainly based on Syraic and Hebrew music. Most music of this time was written for religious purposes and was strictly regulated by church officials. By 386 AD Saint Ambrose of Milian began the use of vernacular hymns in the church worship services.

The development of the music of the Early Middle Ages was intertwined with the grow the of the Christian church. Chanting of scriptures and prayers was practiced earlier. By the sixth century AD modalchant, known as plainchant, had increased so greatly that Pope Gregory I had it collected and organized, and it came to be called Gregorian chant. The chant did not have a regular rhythm but was fitted to the natural accents of the Latin words. Like all previous music, each chant consisted of a single melody, and all the singers sang the same notes. This type of music is called monophonic, or one-voiced.

Nonreligious, or secular, music was composed by wandering poets who sang of chivalry and courtly love in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In France they were either jongleurs, itinerant minstrels who made a living from their songs, or troubadour and troueres, aristocrats who sang for the love of music. In Germany the poet-musicians were called minnesingers. Some two thousand minnstrel melodies are preserved in old manuscripts.

The discovery that two voices could sing two separate melodies at the same time and still produce a pleasing sound occurred sometime around the ninth century. This discovery was called Polyphony. The genesis of polyphony occurred in France, first in very basic notation lacking precise pitch. By the twelfth century, polyphony was developed into elaborate forms in two centers: Paris and St. Martial de Limoges, the latter preceding the former. By this time, precise pitch notation is given, and so the footing is fairly firm.

The first experiments in polyphony were called organum. A secong voice or voices sang the chant melody at perhaps an interval of a fourth or fifth above the original, or tenor. Sometimes the two moved in opposite directions. Above the tenor a more elaborate part might be sung. As the two parts become more independent, often two distinct melodies proceeded at the same time. When the third and fourth parts were added, the music became truly polyphonic.

Sometime after the mid-twelfth century, a new Notre Dame Cathedral was being built in Paris, and with it grew a school of composers. Two names have been preserved from that school- Leonin and Perotin. They stretched the organum to unheard-of lengths and embellished it with flourishes of long melismas, or many notes sung to one syllable. New rhythmic patterns developed, as did repetitions of motifs, sequential patterns, and imitation.

Out of this developed the motet, originally in Latin on a sacred text. Unlike the organum, the text was sung in the upper voices as well as the tenor. Bilingual motets (French-Latin, English-Latin) arose, and secular texts or combinations of sacred and secular texts were used. Tenors were sometimes chosen from French popular songs instead of from plainchant. Instruments played lower parts, making the motet an accompanied solo song.

The period culminated in the works of Guillaume de Machaut. He left 23 motets, more than 100 secular songs, and a mass. They are characterized by excellent craftsmanship with colorful melodic and harmonic inflections and constantly shifting rhythms.

The later fourteenth century was a period during which the French style dominated secular composition throughout Europe. It modified to reflect local tastes in Italy and England, but remained largely French in inspiration for some decades. However, Italian composers continued to develop a more native idiom, combining French Ars Nova ideas with indigenous genres.

Music as a whole progressed slowly through the many years it’s been around, taking it’s time to perfect itself. It can be seen that in just the last few hundred years,1300- 1500AD, that the styles in music took a dramatic leap towards the future. It will be interesting to see how swiftly music will accustom itself to the next thousand years.

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